Wed, Mar 14, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Can viral videos
change the world?

The startling global success of family films and home-made pastiches on YouTube demonstrate its global reach. Now, a viral campaign against Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony foreshadows how that power could be turned to political ends

By John Naughton  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

The mainstream media were transfixed last week by a meme — an infectious idea. Hard-bitten news editors — the professionals who pride themselves on knowing what will happen before it happens — were discomfited to discover that their teenage children knew something they did not. That something was a YouTube video that had been spreading at an astonishing rate. Titled Kony 2012, it is a 30-minute film made by a campaigning organization called Invisible Children.

Its goal was to raise awareness of the activities of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, who leads the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), in the hope of bringing him to justice. Kony and his LRA are distinguished by their violence and brutality, their weird ideology and — crucially for the purposes of the video — their practice of abducting children and turning them into child soldiers. This last practice has led to the bizarre phenomenon of “night commuting,” in which Ugandan children leave their villages at night to sleep in towns, where they are supposedly less vulnerable to kidnapping by Kony and his goons.

Invisible Children is a US-based campaigning group, founded in 2004 by filmmakers, which has been working in Uganda — building radio networks, monitoring LRA movements and helping displaced children and families.

It has focused on raising awareness of the LRA and on influencing US government policy toward the region. It is believed that its campaigning was at least partly responsible for US President Barack Obama’s decision in 2010 to send 100 military advisers to assist the Ugandan military in capturing Kony.

The YouTube video is a brilliant piece of filmmaking, in two ways. First, it has a compelling, simple narrative: Kony is a really bad guy and his capture will end suffering for the people of northern Uganda. If US viewers do their bit by influencing their politicians, the world’s superpower will take action and Kony will be captured.

Second, it conveys this message in a seductive way, with filmmaker Jason Williams explaining to his five-year-old son that this Kony is a monster and that dad’s job is capturing him. What is not to like?

Jason’s message was released on March 5. By Thursday, it had amassed 26 million views. When I last looked at it on Friday, it was up to 63 million views (with 1,212,109 “likes” and only 59,702 “dislikes”). So, in the jargon of the day, it’s “gone viral.” In that sense, it represents the most successful manipulation of our new media ecosystem to date because “virality” is what every huckster, politician and advertiser now craves — but very few achieve.

Viral dissemination has been a feature of the Internet almost from the beginning, but the deliberate exploitation of it dates from Independence Day in the US in 1996, when Hotmail was launched by Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith.

It was the first “Web-mail” system (allowing people to send and receive e-mail using an Internet browser) and its makers had the brilliant idea of appending a footer to every message sent stating that it had been sent by Hotmail and inviting the recipient to “get a free Hotmail account” at www.hotmail.com.

Viral dissemination received a really powerful boost with the launch of YouTube in 2005. Thereafter, people were able to post striking, amusing or daft videos online and the service made it easy to “share” anything that viewers liked. This is what led to the LOLcat explosion and the astonishing viewing totals for charming videos like Charlie Bit My Finger, which has been watched more than 12 million times since it first appeared in 2007.

This story has been viewed 3297 times.

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